Station Eleven – 2*

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

This will likely be a controversial opinion as I am well aware how beloved this book seems to be, but I will admit that on the whole I did not like it. I am going to try and say some nice things about it, I didn’t hate the book, but it did make me angry at points and that coloured my opinion of it very strongly so I may have failed to see other good things in it as a result.

It is a well written book, not remotely helped by the blurb on the back of the book. This isn’t really a story about the woman mentioned, it’s an interwoven tale jumping between points before a disease wipes out a lot of humanity, and points years afterwards as the survivors are trying to put society back together.

I did like that overall this is quite a positive story. A lot of post apocalyptic fiction these days is pretty grim and horrible with little hope for the future and this was very much not that sort of thing, so I do find it a shame on that front that I did not like this book as I could do with more positive stuff to read.

My main dislike of the book comes down to points to do with its treatment of mental and physical disabilities and trauma. This is mild spoilerific, but not massively so. Early on in the book we are introduced to one of the PoV characters’ brother, who is in a wheelchair. When they are running low on supplies after the outbreak and need to head out, the disabled brother commits suicide because he apparently decides that he cannot possibly survive out there so decides not to try.

At a later point, also dealing with the direct aftermath of the outbreak, there is a group of survivors all together in an airport. A young woman, seventeen years old I think, asks around about anti-depressant medication because she has run out. No one has any, she goes through a few days of withdrawal and then walks off into the forest along with none of her stuff and I read an implication there that she has also gone to commit suicide.

These incidents are the main way in which we see physical or mental disabilities portrayed in the book and they are done in a way that suggests that such people cannot possibly survive in this new world and that made me deeply, deeply angry. I do not see why she included these and found them to be insulting and awful in a fundamental way that I just could not get over.

She also seems to glide over the effects of trauma on all of the other survivors. Brief mention is made of them all suffering some sort of trauma because of what they have been through, but we don’t really see it for the most part. I can understand, when you want to do a more positive take on things why you might not want to dwell on it, but some deeper nod to how that would have affected them would have been nice, especially in light of the above examples which she included for reasons beyond my understanding.

I mean, this wasn’t the only thing I disliked, but it did make it very hard for me to like anything else in the book as a result of it being included. I will admit I also found it didn’t quite live up to what I hoped to see. I would have preferred a narrative that did a better job of evoking the idea that we need more than survival as a species. There were hints of it: the comics, the orchestra, someone starting a newspaper, the museum of the world before the outbreak, but I felt like a thin story was plastered over those themes rather than being fully explored. In fact the main plot, such as it was, felt very thin and more as though someone had told her that there needed to be some sort of plot rather than because it was all that important and that being the case, I would rather have done without it entirely and had something else in its place.

Unfortunately I cannot recommend this one personally, though plenty of people do enjoy it so it may well be your thing, but it certainly isn’t mine.

Guns of the Dawn – 5*

Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky

There are some minor spoilers for the book in the review, but I have tried to keep them to a minimum.

I have read a couple of Adrian’s books already and when I started talking about how much I liked them I kept being told that I must read Guns of the Dawn. So I was in a bookshop and saw a copy (bonus, it was signed) and picked it up to read.

The basic premise is that one Kingdom is at war with it’s neighbouring country who are now a Republic after the murder of their King. The other country are invading and the draft has already called for almost every able-bodied man between 15 and 50 but it hasn’t been enough so a draft of women is called for.

The book follows Emily Marshwic as she joins the war and her experiences there, the choices she makes and how it affects her, those around her and her country as a whole.

I adored this book, it was very difficult to put down and an incredibly compelling read. One of the main things I loved about it is that Emily manages to be a very real person, which isn’t that common, in my experience, with female characters written by male authors, especially ones who could be seen to fit the Strong Female Character trope.

But Emily is allowed to be scared, to cry, to fuck things up and also to have her own sexuality and desires without being punished for them. She is allowed to have male and female friendships and even the romantic interests she has in the book doesn’t follow entirely expected paths.

There are a couple of incidents of attempted violence on her person that is not to do with war and that was a little frustrating, though not unexpected I suppose given the context of the book. My only real issue with it was that she manages so well to deal with her attackers, something that is hard to manage in reality, though not impossible of course. Still, in many ways I would rather have that than the alternative, so it’s only a minor quibble.

The depiction of war was done very well. It’s evocative of things I have read about a number of different wars, which I am sure was done on purpose. It’s also very unusual to have a fantasy book set in this sort of era, but I loved it for that as it meant that there was something very different about it. It also had interesting comments to make on a very split society, both along gender and class lines and the effects both of thoseĀ  have on someone’s life. In some ways her class gave Emily an advantage, even whilst her gender did not.

As mentioned before, Emily has both male and female friendships in the book and I really appreciated that. Too often the Strong Female Protagonist trope are basically surrounded by men entirely and you don’t get to see them much with other women. In this book the relationship between Emily and her two sisters is explored, along with other women she meets in the war and that was such a refreshing change.

Overall I thought it was very atmospheric, dealt with the subject matter well and sensitively and managed to create something both poignant and interesting to read without being too depressing and hopeless.

I shall add my voice to the many who already say that you should read this book for you should, it is excellent and well worth a look. I am struggling to decided whether or not I prefer this to Children of Time. In the end I think I shall say that they are two pretty different books and that I adore them both for very different reasons.

The Court of Broken Knives – 4*

The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark

I am going to go back and do reviews for some of the other books I have read this year, probably over the next few months (I don’t want to do too much at once). But I figured if I was going to do reviews I should start with the book I just read first so it is still fresh in my mind.

I bought The Court of Broken Knives back at SFXCon in February where I first got the chance to meet the author and I liked what she said about the book so I decided to get it. Since I have such a ridiculous to read pile it’s been sitting in that since and her appearance at the last SRFC is the reason I dusted it off and got to work.

As someone who studied Classics, a fantasy book inspired by Alexander the Great certainly got my attention. It’s a very violent book, lots of battles and gore in it, as well as some sex too (though more mentions of it than graphic depictions of sexual activities).

The strangest thing I found about this book is that it would be easy to think it was by a male author, that may be internal biases showing based on the fact that it has way more male characters than female and the focus on war and fighting is more than would be typical. I will admit to a part of me being a bit irritated about not having more female stories in it, but on the other hand I really want things to get to the point where there is so much good representation of female characters in books that it doesn’t matter if a woman chooses to write primarily from the point of men.

The main female character in the book also starts off well, but then seems to turn into someone mostly obsessed with a man who doesn’t seem to get much agency or story after that point. I am hoping that this will improve later on in the series as it is most definitely a detractor from an otherwise enjoyable book.

This is a really dark book (as the mention of violence earlier might give away), most of the characters in it are not exactly lovely people, but the world building is really excellent and I found myself very caught up in it all. There is also a lot of grey in it, characters are capable of very different acts in a short space of time.

If a fantasy based on real life wars is not appealing to you then do not read this. It does not pull punches with the violence and it will not be the book for you. Overall I did like it though and I am curious where the trilogy will go next. The second book is currently out in Hardback and when it is in paperback I will likely pick it up.